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Le présent article n'est pas disponible en Français
September 2007

Covering stage-managed political events for national newspapers can be difficult to do in an original way, especially when it's an event that's been a part of British political life for hundreds of years. Here I describe my experience of covering, from brief to printed page, Budget Day in March 2007 for the London-based newspaper The Independent.


Every year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the UK's finance minister) carries the Budget speech to the Houses of Parliament in the now familiar 'red box', which he first presents to the press in front of Number 11 Downing Street, the Chancellor's official residence. (The house next door, Number 10 Downing Street, is, of course, the Prime Minister’s official residence.)

The tradition of delivering the Budget speech to the House of Commons has been running since the 16th century, and in July 1997 Gordon Brown became only the second Chancellor in history to use a new red box for the Budget.

The brief and Budget Day

The Independent, along with all the other UK national newspapers and news agencies, commissioned photographers to cover the final Budget for the then Prime Minister-in-waiting, Gordon Brown.

On the morning of 21 March 2007 the press photographers, broadcast crews, writers and presenters, briefed with the job of covering Budget Day, passed through the security checks and gathered in Downing Street.

The picture desk at The Independent

The picture desk at The Independent

The brief from The Independent was very open: to be as creative as possible and to shoot “something different” for the front page. With so many photographers present and the annual coverage the event receives, getting something original was going to be quite a big challenge.

Three photographers were assigned by The Independent to cover the presentation of the Chancellor’s red box. Independent staff photographer David Sandison was positioned directly opposite the Number 11 door the other side of Downing Street from Gordon Brown, to shoot head on as he emerged. Jonathan Evans flanked David to his right with the intention of shooting Brown with the doors of both Number 11 and Number 10 in shot. I flanked David to his left. However, because the pavement and press pen curves around I was positioned closer to Brown than either of the other two.

The Independent’s picture editor Lynn Cullen briefed David to shoot the Budget in Downing Street. Having covered this event seven or eight times this was more than enough of a brief. He arrived very early and set up his ladder to mark his central spot on the street opposite Number 11. This spot was already in the second row of photographers, and being up on a ladder in a confined spot, elbow to elbow with other photographers is not David’s favourite position to work from. “I don’t particularly like straight on positions and I hate being penned in as there is no freedom to influence your picture by moving around,” says David.

David’s shot on the front of the Budget section.

David’s shot on the front of the Budget section.

David used two Canon EOS-1D Mark II bodies set to JPEG with the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM and EF28-70mm f/2.8L USM lenses. Despite his initial scepticism about his position, David felt he shot a good set of pictures covering what happened.

“I was pleasantly surprised that the picture desk used my image [on the front of the Budget section] reasonably well. You never know how they are going to use an image with so many agencies around,” says David.

Jonathan shot Brown with Number 11 and Number 10 in shot, with the forethought that this was Brown’s last Budget as Chancellor before taking over as Prime Minister from Tony Blair. The symbolism of walking from Number 11 to Number 10 seemed a clever and fitting angle.

Jonathan’s wide shot was created with an 85-100mm focal length (as he was the other side of the road to Brown), and he employed Pocket Wizards with his flash guns to create a moody lighting effect for his shot of Brown walking towards Number 10. He also timed his shot to illuminate Brown between the windows as he was walking.

One of the frustrations with his shot was the lack of space between Brown and his entourage, which walked ahead of him in the same direction making for a messy image.

“Had we known about Gordon and his wife Sarah doing a walk two hours prior to the red box event perhaps this shot could have been improved as they crossed the road towards the cameras which meant that they would have been larger in the image but still with Number 10 and 11 in the background,” says Jonathan.

“It’s good when three people go to the same job and agree to co-operate. Sometimes people just look after themselves. It’s good to work as a team. It would have been a different situation if we had agreed to do something and one of us had moved into our colleague’s position.”

Personally, I did not make my final decision about the position I would shoot from until I arrived at the job, had seen the lie of the land and fellow photographers and TV crews, and spoken to my colleagues.

Photographers on Downing Street.

Photographers on Downing Street.

As we were all working for the same paper, we discussed our positioning and I made the decision to cover our brief from a different physical angle, rather than the same or similar position with a different lens.

I had planned and tested different lighting techniques the day before, and brought my remote flash set up with Pocket Wizards to Downing Street.

I used three camera bodies – two EOS 5D bodies and one EOS-1D Mark II, with the EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM, EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM and an EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM lenses, and Canon Speedlite 580 EX flashes. In the end I didn’t use my remote lighting as I opted to change cameras and move my feet in the middle of the event.

For Brown’s initial exit from Number 11 I positioned myself to the left of David and the group of photographers shooting head on, and was initially half way between David and Gordon Brown, but to the right of another group of photographers.

From this position I had planned to shoot the black railings outside Number 11 with Brown’s legs and the red box, followed by the box in front of Brown’s face half obscuring him. The railing shot was not as successful as I had hoped due to the entourage that followed and surrounded Brown, however I succeeded in getting a shot with the briefcase obscuring Brown’s face except for one eye.

Two of the early shots from the day on screen.

Two of the early shots from the day on screen.

The final and most important shot that I had planned to get was the one used on the front cover of The Independent – that of the back of Brown’s legs while holding the box as he was walking from Number 11 towards his waiting car and Number 10.

Prior to taking this shot I had checked out my ability to move from one side of the photographers behind them to the other side, ending up directly behind Brown as he walked away from our position towards Number 10 and his waiting car.

The image used on the front page of The Independent the following day.

The image used on the front page of The Independent the following day.

So, mid-way through the event I changed my camera from the EOS 5D and the EF300mm f/2.8L IS USM lens to the EOS-1D Mark II with the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM attached and ran round the back of the photographers to their far left. I then leant over the barrier as low as I could get, to shoot from leg height, directly behind as Brown walked away from our position while holding the red box on his right side.

It was difficult both to get a clear shot of Brown’s legs, due to other officials and police ahead of him, and have time to get the most aesthetically pleasing leg position as he was walking.

The upright format of the front page was also at the forefront of my mind so I concentrated on shots that I thought would fit into the space available.

After Brown had driven away to the House of Commons all the photographers started to download, edit and transmit the photographs to our respective employers. In my case I sent my digital images via FTP (File Transfer Protocol) via the internet directly into The Independent’s computer system.

I filed 13 images and then telephoned the picture desk to make sure that they had received my transmission and to let them know that I was ready for further instruction.

Other possible front page shots.

Other possible front page shots.

Kevin Bayliss, art director for The Independent since 1996, says: “Budget Day is not like any other news event in that the key images are the same every year, and every year it's a struggle to find something fresh, especially when there is a news front to find, a budget supplement front, speech pages, and news pages to picture.

“The viewpoint of the page 1 picture we used I hadn't seen before and hence it was an immediate contender, though it didn't offer a sympathetic area to place a headline and it was only our determination to use the image that forced us to compromise with a black panel to white the headline out of.”

Planning the day

The Independent’s coverage of Budget Day starts well before the event and involves many departments. The Budget Day 2007 team was lead by the editor-in-chief Simon Kelner, executive news editor Dan Gledhill, picture editor Lynn Cullen, graphics editor Kristina Ferris, business editor Mike Harrison and art director Kevin Bayliss.

Prior to the 22 March edition, three inter-departmental meetings were held to establish possible themes of The Budget, winners and losers, and stories likely to emerge. Although the fact that it was Gordon Brown’s final Budget gave the steer for the image of the day. The news editor briefed reporters to find case studies and inform the picture desk of people to photograph, and the news and business desk assigned anticipated budget topics to cover.

The Independent received thousands of photographs related to the Budget on the 21 of March. Members of the picture desk selected then routed their preferred images into various folders under subject names for other departments to view.

The news desk at The Independent.

The news desk at The Independent.

The electronic picture desk (EPD) then sized, cropped, colour corrected, sharpened and cleaned up (optimised) the images selected for print. The ink levels were set and the images saved with The Independent’s printing specifications.

“We have to be flexible to take in other news stories that may demand space on the day,” says Kevin Bayliss. “In the build up to the Iraq War, for example, we actually ditched the Budget supplement at about 3pm on the day, throwing out a lot of pre-planned work, because the budget had been a damp squib, and the Iraq affair was increasingly looking like becoming the major event it became.”

The final deadline for sending the paper to print on 21 March was 8pm, when the paper was sent electronically to the printers in Watford near London and Oldham in the north west of England.

In the end, despite all my forward planning, moving position mid-event was a gamble. Fortunately, the final printed result shows it definitely paid off. But photographers have to be prepared for it not always working out, especially at events such as Budget Day when there is a huge amount of competition from the photo agencies.